Calling Special Olympics Missouri and the University of Missouri System "two entities with a shared mission," Brian Neuner announced the formation of a new partnership Wednesday.

Both organizations have a statewide reach, said Neuner, chief development and marketing officer for Special Olympics Missouri.

"We focus on abilities, not disabilities," Neuner said. "The focus of this relationship is on possibilities."

The announcement took place in the aquatic mezzanine of the University of Missouri Student Recreation Center, which is a possible venue for the Special Olympics Missouri Summer Games when it returns to Columbia in June.

 

Officials said last month that the summer games will be held in Columbia in 2020, 2021, 2022 and 2023.

Forms the partnership may take include expanded health screenings of athletes by University of Missouri Health Care and mentorships and leadership training for athletes at the university's Novak Leadership Institute, said Susan Stegeman, Special Olympics Missouri CEO.

"We want to hire more interns for the organization," Stegeman said, using students from MU and the other three system universities.

Close to 1,000 volunteers also will be needed for the summer games, she said.

UM System President Mun Choi introduced Special Olympics athlete Kristina Rhodes, of Lee's Summit, a swimmer who was fitted with special goggles after a free vision screening determined she is blind in one eye and has limited vision in the other.

"I'm among athletes — world-class athletes right here," Choi said. "We are proud of you and inspired by you ... We feel deeply committed to this organization."

Rhodes said her best swimming event is the 200 meter backstroke, and that swimming is great exercise.

"It's helped me a lot," Rhodes said.

She has a job and lives independently in her own apartment with her cat that "doesn't take up much space," she said.

MU women's basketball coach Robin Pingeton gave Rhodes a team T-shirt. Pingeton's son has special needs, she said.

"People with special needs can live as full a life as any other," Pingeton said. "They just need someone to believe in them."

The partnership with Special Olympics Missouri is a great idea, she said.

"I'm honored and thrilled to be a part of something that's going to change the lives of so many people," she said.

Jonathan Curtright, CEO of MU Health Care, said MU's Thompson Center for Autism and Neurodevelopmental Disorders is a "jewel" whose services will be offered to Special Olympics Missouri.

"This is totally aligned," Curtright said. "It's our privilege to get to do this."

MU Chancellor Alexander Cartwright said the partnership is an easy decision.

"We are honored to be part of this," he said. "We don't get many of those easy decisions. This is part of who we are as an institution. We are committed to the impact we have on people."

rmckinney@columbiatribune.com